Covert Operations as Part of India’s Counter-Proxy War Strategy
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said at a function in New Delhi on May 21 that pro-active options must be exercised to meet threats and challenges to national security. He said, “You have to neutralise terrorist through terrorist.”
The government’s counter-proxy war strategy is to dominate the Line of Control (LoC), minimise infiltration and, based on intelligence inputs, neutralise terrorists who manage to get in, while ensuring that there is no collateral damage. The army has been given a free hand and in one year cease-fire violations and infiltration attempts have dropped 30%.
In a carefully drawn up strategy to bleed India through a thousand cuts, Pakistan launched a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1989. During these decades, militancy — often described as an insurgency — has waxed and waned, but has shown no signs of abating completely.
While in the initial years, a handful of Kashmiri militant organisations like Syed Salahuddin’s Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) were active, their numbers have dwindled and only a small number of hard-core terrorists now remain in J&K.
The remaining roots of militancy are now almost completely in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). Pakistani terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), are now the ‘strategic assets’ and the sword arms of the Pakistan army and its notorious intelligence wing the ISI.
These terrorist organisations are continuing to wage their so-called jihad in J&K and other parts of India through acts of terrorism, extortion, looting, rape and murder and the circulation of fake currency.
Throughout a quarter century of proxy war, India has shown tremendous strategic restraint in the face of grave provocation. India’s counter-proxy war campaign has been limited to preventing infiltration along the LoC and eliminating terrorists who manage to sneak through, with military operations being confined to the areas within India’s borders and the LoC.
It is inconceivable that any other nation would have refrained from launching trans-LoC operations to eliminate terrorist training camps and interdict known routes of infiltration.
This reactive policy has achieved only limited results. It has succeeded in reducing the intensity of conflict but not in eliminating it completely.
Eliminate Terror Roots
Clearly, since the remaining roots of militancy are now entirely in Pakistan and PoK, the campaign must be re-directed to eliminate these roots, even while diplomatic options are being pursued to get the government of Pakistan and its army to give up their un-achievable objective of wresting J&K from India by military means, including irregular warfare and state-sponsored terrorism.
Several pro-active options are available to raise the cost of waging a proxy war for the Pakistan army and the ISI. In order to ensure that the actual perpetrators of terrorism are targeted, while simultaneously avoiding collateral damage, covert operations must be launched to neutralise the leadership of terrorist organisations that are inimical to India.
A clandestine operation can be methodically planned and stealthily executed at an opportune moment. These are not time-critical responses and have an element of ‘plausible deniability’ built into them.
Other advantages include relatively low political and military cost and low risk of casualties to own operatives. Local personnel — who harbour grudges against the targeted organisations — can often be used.
According to the intelligence grapevine, India’s covert capabilities in Pakistan were wound down on the orders of the prime minister in 1997 so as to promote reconciliation.
It will take at least three to five years to put in place basic capabilities for covert operations as both the terrorist organisations and their handlers like the ISI will have to be penetrated.
Targets should include the leaders of fundamentalist terrorist organisations in Pakistan who are planning and supervising terrorist strikes in India like Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, their ISI handlers and fugitives from Indian justice like Dawood Ibrahim. In fact, Dawood should be brought back alive to India to face public trial.
Simultaneously, to hurt the Pakistan army, logistics installations like ammunition dumps from which arms and explosives are issued to terrorists for strikes, communications centres and key bridges inside PoK should be blown up.
The Pakistan army, which is itself fighting a losing battle against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), will soon get the message. If it still does not, it will be time to make Pakistan’s baseless allegation of Indian intervention in Balochistan a self-fulfilling prophecy.
[The writer is a former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi]